The civil service has done an excellent job since power-sharing talks collapsed but the situation cannot endureby Jill Rutter and Jess Sargeant / September 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
On Thursday the Institute for Government was interviewed by Sky News about our new report on Northern Ireland. We suggested that the UK did not pay much attention to what was going on there. Pushback from the interviewer: we talk about the border a lot.
Which is true. The words “Irish backstop” are seared on the hearts of a generation of Brexit watchers, commentators and negotiators. Ever since the then prime minister Theresa May signed off a Joint Report full of Irish fudge in December 2017, we seem to have talked about nothing else. Meanwhile we have come to have a familiarity with a new generation of Northern Irish politicians: Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson.
But.. but.. while the Northern Ireland/Ireland land border is a massive preoccupying issue for Brexit—and Brexit has been the sole preoccupation of the UK political establishment since June 2016—it is of course far from the only story about Northern Ireland. NI has been without ministers since January 2017: 980 days and counting, when deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned over the handling of the renewable heat incentive scheme (now the subject of an inquiry), but also reflecting a longer run deterioration in relations between the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The UK could barely cope with a limbo of five days in May 2010 when the parties were sorting out the consequences of a hung parliament. The fact that a whole nation of the UK has been left in a governance limbo for so long should be headline news, if not a major scandal.
It is a huge tribute to the civil service in Northern Ireland that they have filled the vacuum left by politicians. They have taken on responsibilities, made decisions, raised their public profile and kept the show on the road. But there are limits to what they can do. Anything that strays too far from areas where they have clear policy cover from the executive before it collapsed is likely to end up in the courts. Policy maintenance is possible. Reform is not. But in many areas of public service, reform is what Northern Ireland needs and those very same civil servants warn of the risk of “stagnation and decay.” In other areas, much needed legislation is languishing…